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DUSHANBE (Reuters) -- Tajikistan has jailed four followers of a banned Islamic party for up to 18 years on charges of inciting antigovernment activities, the Supreme Court has said.

Central Asian governments are clamping down on what they see as growing religious extremism in the predominantly Muslim but secular former Soviet region following a rise in clashes between security forces and armed gangs.

The Supreme Court in Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, said that four members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party were jailed for crimes including incitement of religious hatred and calling forcibly to change the constitution.

The four were all arrested in the north of Tajikistan, in the Ferghana valley region where the country borders Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Human rights groups have accused Central Asian governments of using the Islamist threat as an excuse to crack down on political dissent in a region where, as in Soviet times, alternative views are often branded as extremist.

However, security analysts say radical groups are gaining strength in the region, emboldened by people's growing frustration with economic hardship.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, argues it uses only peaceful methods to achieve its goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate -- a theocratic Muslim state.

But regional governments accuse groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir of stoking unrest and seek to crack down on their operations. The party is banned in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan has jailed 26 people this year for their links to Hizb ut-Tahrir and more than 50 citizens that it says were affiliated to other banned extremist groups.
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